Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

‘You know what fathers and sons are like.’

‘Not really, no.’

‘They’re our guides into manhood, for starters […] We want to be like them; we want to be better than them. We want to be the only people in the world who are allowed to be better than them.’

Home Fire begins from the perspective of one of the women. Isma is about to miss her flight to America where she has a place to do a PhD in sociology at Amherst. She’s been detained by immigration in the UK who search and interrogate her. ‘He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.’ Eventually she’s allowed to leave but not before she’s missed her flight.

Eventually Isma arrives in Massachusetts where she meets Eamonn Lone, son of the British politician Karamat Lone. Isma recognises Eamonn. When she was younger there was a photograph of the local cricket team in the house of a family friend. Karamat Lone was on it. Isma overheard her grandmother telling someone of the cruelty he’d shown their family when he could’ve acted otherwise. However, Isma doesn’t reveal to Eamonn that she knows who he is and a relationship begins to develop between them.

Isma’s family situation is complicated. Her mother and grandmother died within a year, leaving her to parent her twelve-year-old twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. Aneeka is at home in London, attending college. Parvaiz has left, occasionally letting Aneeka know via Skype messages that he’s okay.

Shamsie intertwines the two families in order to explore relationships, love and loyalty. Through the range of characters, she creates a complex view of what it means to be a Muslim, exploring different perspectives within Muslim communities. This is at its most stark with Karamat Lone and Aneeka. Lone is known as Lone Wolf due to his championing by the tabloids who see him ‘as a lone crusader taking on the backwardness of British Muslims’. Not long after his appointment as Home Secretary, he returns to the secondary school he attended in Bradford to give a speech.

‘You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours. And look at all you miss out on because of it.’

Aneeka wears the hijab, prays and is teetotal. She’s also about to enter Lone’s life and have a profound effect.

Home Fire is a retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone. While a number of recent retellings of Greek and Shakespearean plays have fallen short, Shamsie pulls this one off with aplomb. The novel uses the key themes and follows the structure of the source play but its characters, settings and ideas are contemporary and highly relevant. As the story moves from character to character – Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Anneka, Karamat – the sense of urgency builds. Home Fire is a compelling, tightly crafted novel; I read it in one sitting.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

‘There’s a trick to time […] You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or longer,’ he says.

The Trick to Time begins in the present day in a southern seaside town. Mona, nearing 60, runs a shop from which she paints, dresses and sells collectible dolls. Before the end of the first chapter it becomes clear that some of these dolls serve a particular purpose. A woman arrives with a carefully wrapped parcel; she’s grieving:

‘I’ll tell you what, let me give you this.’ Mona takes a business card from the counter and writes her address on the back. ‘That’s me. Shall we say next Wednesday at 4.00 p.m.? Would that suit you?’ The woman nods and Mona smiles. ‘I just need the weight.’

The woman’s voice is a whisper when she speaks. ‘Five pounds seven ounces,’ she says and looks around as though she’s told a secret.

The dolls Mona paints and dresses are made by a local carpenter. She collects them from his workshop every few days. Their conversations suggest they have a working relationship but Mona’s observations show she worries about him too. He lives alone in the workshop and is haphazard at taking care of himself.

Alongside the now, de Waal contracts time and tells the story of Mona’s youth and young adulthood. In these sections of the novel we see her grow up in a small Irish town, raised by her father after her mum dies of cancer. In 1972, she leaves for Birmingham and meets William who, after a short courtship, she marries.

The Trick to Time considers the impact events that happen when we are younger have on our lives as we get older; how our desires and youthful optimism can be eroded, and how we can either weave these events into a new version of life or allow them to dominate it. This is exemplified by two of the minor characters, Karl and Bridie, as well as Mona.

Karl, who Mona spots looking out of his flat window at 5 a.m., is grief stricken after his friend Andreas’ death. Mona begins dating him after they bump into each other in a café; he becomes a catalyst for change in her.

Bridie lives in the village near Mona and her father. They visit her every month.

‘Why doesn’t she visit us instead?’ asks Mona. She is fourteen.

‘Good question,’ her father replies as though he’d never thought of it before.

‘At least then I could do some mending or shell the peas while she has the clock stopped.’

Her father laughs and squeezes her arm in close. ‘Ah, she’s a conjuror all right is Bridie O’Connor. I’ve never known a longer hour. But.’

And his ‘but’ says everything. Mona knows the words that come after. But she’s family, sort of, and she loves you. But she’s lonely. But she lives alone. But it’s the right thing to do. But we have to think of more people than ourselves alone. But have a heart, Mona.

In her debut novel My Name Is Leon, de Waal examined the difficulties of working class, single motherhood and the care system for children of colour with diligence and without descending into sentimentality. In The Trick to Time she applies the same focus to grief, compelling the reader to invest in these characters and their lives, taking us to the dark places which have shaped who they’ve become. There are points where the novel is difficult to read but it isn’t without hope; sometimes the control of time is ours.

Thanks to Viking for the review copy.

The Idiot – Elif Batuman

Selin arrives at Harvard to begin her university education as the internet is becoming more widely used. One of the first things she’s given is an email address:

And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it any time.

With this Batuman introduces the key themes of the novel: language, communication and unrequited love. It is via email that Selin will later attempt to progress a friendship with a fellow student.

Initially, Selin tries to navigate her way through which courses to take, who to hang out with and how her relationship with her roommates will work. Eventually she gets into a routine, particularly with her Russian class which meets every day. There she reconnects with Ralph, who she’s met previously at a summer program, and Ivan who becomes her unrequited crush. She is also befriended by Svetlana who’s seen Selin in Linguistics 101.

Some of the reading for the Russian class is a text called Nina in Siberia. It’s been written especially for beginner students using only the grammar they’ve learned so far. In the first section, a man named Ivan has left the protagonist Nina a letter saying he’s left for Siberia.

I found myself reading and rereading Ivan’s letter as if he’d written it to me, trying to figure out where he was and whether he cared about me or not.

When Selin begins to email the real Ivan, she uses the letter as a template to start their correspondence. It’s also via Ivan that she spends the summer in Europe, mostly in Hungary, teaching English in a village. His friend runs the scheme and Ivan tells Selin that he’ll be in Budapest so they can see each other on the weekends.

The Idiot explores some interesting ideas around language and communication. Batuman considers what it means to think and speak in different languages, how communicating electronically or by phone is different to communicating in person, and what you can teach someone about a language that isn’t their first one.

Selin’s trying to work out how to be in the world and the narrative meanders along with her as she tries different friendships and experiences. The Idiot is clever – the exploration of language and the intertextual play is well done and interesting – however, there is a little too much meandering as Selin negotiates a year at university. Worth reading if you want to take an intellectual wander.

 

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

Books of the Year 2017

Due to life interfering, I read half as many books this year as I have in previous years. What I have read though has, on the whole, been incredibly good. I’ve selected the ten I loved the most and included five others I highly recommend at the end of the piece. If I’ve reviewed the book in full, there’s a link at the bottom of the description.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

The story of a marriage between a young, educated woman and a university lecturer. When I Hit You is both a tale of domestic violence and of a woman becoming a writer by writing her way out of her situation. Kandasamy’s experimental style frames the experience as though the narrator is witnessing the horror brought upon her. It’s brutal, it’s thoughtful, it’s shocking. It’s incredibly relevant in 2017.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Meena Kandasamy here.

 

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky – Leslie Nnedi Arimah

Hands down the best short story collection I’ve ever read. Arimah does things with the form that shouldn’t be possible. In the first story, for example, the protagonist is held in a moment while the back story of everything that led to that point is revealed and yet the tension holds sharp. Many of the stories are concerned with the way women are shaped by/shape themselves around men, all of them carry an emotional punch.

 

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Two sisters, Effia and Esa, born in West Africa in the 1770s are separated. One becomes the wife of a slave trader, the other is shipped to America as a slave. Gyasi follows the two lines to the present day. Each chapter focuses on the next branch of the family tree and works as a short story in its own right. Alongside this runs the story of the creation of the black race, its reasons and consequences. It’s an incredible achievement.

My full review is here.

 

Attrib. and Other Stories – Eley Williams

Williams’ debut short story collection is full of animals, clever word play, humour and love. While all of these elements contribute to intelligent, engaging stories, it’s the emotions at the core of the tales which elevate them to something special. The reader’s transported to the position of the narrator, feeling their anticipation at the potential lover standing next to them or their loss at the one who’s just left.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Eley Williams here.

 

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, exploring her marriage to an older man, Edwyn, and the impact previous relationships, both romantic and familial, have had on who they are now. Almost everyone in Neve’s life is abusive in some form; Riley conveys this through a range of incidents told from Neve’s perspective, leading the reader to question whether or not she’s telling the truth. Searing and utterly pertinent in 2017.

My full review is here.

 

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more.

 

 

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

An unnamed narrator gives birth to a boy as floodwaters rise in the U.K. Soon London is covered and the narrator and her new family can’t return to their flat. They move to their in-laws and then on to a refugee camp. Also works as a metaphor for the first year of motherhood. Taut and compelling.

My full review is here.

 

 

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

A collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. Only Moshfegh could pull that off.

My full review is here.

 

Elmet – Fiona Mosley

“Daddy“ builds a house in a copse in the woods for himself and his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. The land on which he builds is owned by Price, the most influential man in the area. Daddy is fully aware of the antagonism this will cause, but, as the best bare-knuckle fighter in the U.K. and Ireland, he wields his own form of power. From this moment, the two men are pitted against each other; it’s a matter of when, not if, the violent tension will explode. An exploration of gender roles and what happens if you transgress them, as well as a commentary on class and privilege.

I wrote about why Elmet is an important working class novel for OZY.

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

At a party, Lucina feels a pain and blood begins to fill her eyes. She begins to go blind. The doctor tells her he can do nothing other than monitor the situation, leaving her to adjust to a life in which she has to rely on others to help her. She is furious and her anger increases as the story progresses. Told in flash length chapters with short, spiky, repetitive sentences. Horrifying and brilliant.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Lina Meruane here.

 

And the highly recommended:

Tinman – Sarah Winman

Ellis and Michael are inseparable until Annie arrives in their lives and Ellis marries her. A story of hidden love, friendship, AIDS and art. Beautiful and heart-wrenching.

A Book of Untruths – Miranda Doyle

A memoir about Doyle’s family. Every chapter reveals a lie that’s been told while questioning the reliability of memory and the purpose of memoir writing.

A Manual for Heartache – Cathy Rentzenbrink

An indispensable guide for when the worst happens to you or someone close to you. My piece about it is here.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

The love story of performers Rose and Perrot and also a scathing commentary on patriarchal society’s treatment of women, particularly with regards to sex and shame.

My full review is here.

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The sequel to Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. Sofia’s married to Conall but there’s a whopping great secret he hasn’t told her. Has a punch the air, feminist ending.

My full review and interview with Ayisha Malik is here.

Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke

It’s 2016 and in Lark, Texas two bodies have been found within a week. The first, a black male, a visitor to the town. The second, a local white woman. It’s the talk of Geneva Sweet’s cafe:

“And ain’t nobody done a damn thing about that black man got killed up the road just last week,” Huxley said.

“They ain’t thinking about that man,” Tim said, tossing a grease-stained napkin on his plate. “Not when a white girl come up dead.”

“Mark my words,” Huxley said, looking gravely at each and every black face in the cafe. “Somebody is going down for this.”

Locke introduces Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews into the equation. Mathews is suspended from duty and his marriage is on the rocks over an ultimatum issued by his wife who wants him to quit his job. His suspension is due to him being called out late at night by a friend, Rutherford McMillan, over an incident with Ronnie Malvo. Two days later, Malvo was found dead. The bullet wounds matched McMillan’s gun, a gun which he’d reported missing the previous day.

Ronnie “Redrum” Malvo was a tatted-up cracker with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a criminal organization that made money off meth production and the sale of illegal guns – a gang whose only initiation rite was to kill a nigger. Ronnie had been harassing Mack’s granddaughter, Breanna, a part-time student at Sam Houston State, for weeks – following her in his car as she walked to and from town, calling out words she didn’t want to repeat, driving back and forth in front of her house when he knew she was home, cussing her color, her body, the way she wore her “nappy” hair.

When Mathews gets a call from his friend Greg Heglund, an agent within the Houston field office of the FBI, telling him about the case in Lark and suggesting he go and find out why the local sheriff’s refusing outside help, Mathews can’t help himself.

In Lark, Locke creates a town dominated by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the power and money of Wally Jefferson. A man who lives in a house which is a near perfect replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and sits bang opposite Geneva’s cafe. Bluebird, Bluebird is a tale of racial hatred but Locke’s created something much more complex than the initial premise appears. As Mathews uncovers the town’s secrets, Locke shows how the heritage of blacks and whites in America is deeply entwined and suggests that white hatred comes from a more complicated place than they might wish to acknowledge.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a gripping, timely novel. The first in a new series featuring Darren Mathews, I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

I’m delighted to welcome Attica Locke to the blog to answer some questions about the book.

Bluebird, Bluebird has a contemporary setting; did it feel important to be writing about race in America now?

It’s simply my world view. I’m a person of color and so I frequently write characters who are of color and in portraying the contemporary world they live in, I end up writing about race in America. I will say that I wrote this book before Trump was elected and we’ve seen this ugly cancer of racism metastasize all over the country. So it’s been odd seeing how prescient the book is. Although…. Just the fact that Trump was running for President of the United States so successfully was hint enough as to where we were headed.

A small section of the novel is written from the point of view of a white supremacist; how did it feel to get into the mindset of that character?

Oddly freeing. It wasn’t hard to write at all. I just typed up all my worst nightmares about what white supremacist think of me and let it all out. Somewhere in there too I was trying to understand where all that rage comes from. I have a theory that so much of hate and crime has to do with people’s perceived concept of scarcity—their belief, often false belief, that there isn’t enough for them. I think Keith—that character—believes that black men have taken something from him. It’s really a wounded point of view. It actually, I hope, shows you how small these white supremacists are.

The relationships you portray, particularly the marriages, are complex and often difficult. What interests you about people’s romantic relationships?

I suppose the usual stuff—what draws people together. It’s always interesting to write two people who don’t seem like they should be drawn to each other but they are anyway. And of course romantic conflict can be so irrational and passionate. That’s always fun to write too.

Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

It goes to what I was saying before. It’s a mix of exploring what scares me and also philosophically looking at the way people respond to perceived scarcity—whether scarcity of money of love and affection. I’m so curious about why some people lash out and some people don’t.

You’re a screenwriter as well as a novelist; do you treat them as separate entities or does your work in one form inform your work in the other?

I think they can’t help but inform each other—maybe in ways I can’t even see. But I understand the two mediums very well and I treat them differently when I’m writing.

Are we going to see more of Ranger Darren Matthews?

Yes! This is the beginning of a series of novels along Highway 59 in east Texas, all featuring Darren Mathews.

And, I have to ask, will Jay Porter be back at any point?

I’m sure. But it’s nothing I’d try to force. I’d have to wait for the right story to demand that he return.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers and have you read anything recently by a woman writer that you’d recommend?

Jane Smiley. Toni Morrison. Francine Prose. Jesmyn Ward. Paula Daly. Liane Moriarty. Curtis Sittenfeld. Tayari Jones. Jami Attenberg.

My favourite books of the last 18 months or so are All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; Swing Time by Zadie Smith; Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; Made for LoveMade for Love by Alisa Nutting; Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki; and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Thanks to Attica Locke for the Q&A and to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

Dark Chapter – Winnie M. Li

Trigger warning: This book focuses on the sexual assault of a young woman and its aftermath.

I am not the same person. I am different. I am now a rape victim.

Dark Chapter tells the story of two people: Vivian, a young woman who is raped in a park just outside Belfast, and Johnny, a fifteen-year-old traveller boy and Vivian’s rapist.

Vivian is an educated woman. Her family, who own a dry-cleaners, have pushed her to go to Harvard. She wants to see the world and owns a map pinpointing the trails she wants to walk. Johnny’s memories of his childhood are of his mum and dad splitting up, his older brother Michael being caught stealing by the police and the prejudice his family faced.

The overall structure of the book is in four sections: the first covers the characters’ childhoods/youth up to and including the rape; the second looks at the aftermath of the rape; the third the trial, and the final section sees how their lives change following the verdict. Within the sections themselves, the point-of-view moves between Vivian and Johnny, juxtaposing their lives.

Both structural decisions are interesting; in choosing to cover such an extended period of time, Li’s focus is wider than the rape itself. She considers events in Johnny’s life that might have led to the sense of entitlement he has, particularly in the way misogyny and rape culture pervade our society. The police process and victim support is looked at in a way I’ve never seen in fiction before, demonstrating how arduous it is for the survivor as well as the lack of resources and funding that are available. And she shows how it is possible to build a new life, both for the survivor and the perpetrator.

It’s a brave and shocking decision to tell the story from both sides. While Johnny’s actions are horrific, by delving into his backstory, Li humanises him. While it’s impossible to like him, it is possible to understand the way culture and some of the people he associates with might have influenced his reading of the world and his place in it. Li avoids demonising traveller communities by including Johnny’s family, who have a range of reactions to his behaviour. His dad, in particular, has a very interesting response.

The other focus of the book is the way women are allowed to move through the world. When Vivian’s roommate thinks she’s ‘nuts’ for wanting to hike trails alone, Vivian sees the solitariness as key:

After all, isn’t that the whole point? Thoreau living in solitude, off in his cabin by Walden Pond. Walt Whitman waxing lyrical about leaves of grass, writing under a tree while his beard grew longer and shaggier with the passing seasons. Edward Abbey drifting down a vast canyon in the American Southwest, the rock walls rising on either side of him, just him and the canyon.

It’s notable that all the examples Vivian thinks of are men. Why can’t women move through the world in the same way? Well, the answer is in the various examples Li provides of some of Vivian’s travels, both before and after the rape. Sometimes everything’s absolutely fine, at other times it isn’t.

Dark Chapter is a compelling novel. Li tells a rounded tale of the lives of two people utterly altered by one horrific event. It’s an important and timely book.

I spoke to Winnie M. Li about her decision to write the book, being a woman in the world and winning The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

Thanks to Winnie M. Li and Imogen Harris for the interview and to Legend Press for the review copy.

 

 

The Handsworth Times – Sharon Duggal + interview

In the first two chapters of The Handsworth Times, one boy is turned into a fire ball by petrol bombs thrown during a riot and another is killed, knocked off his bike by an ambulance. It’s one of the most arresting openings I’ve ever read.

The character who connects both of the boys is Mukesh Agarwal, father of the boy who is killed and saviour of the one who is not.

The churning alcohol in Mukesh’s stomach begins to rise up towards his mouth, scorching his throat along the way. He takes in a long, deep breath of the smoky air through his nostrils and it halts the acidic bile attempting to rise up through his body. Sobriety hits him suddenly and he too becomes transfixed by the burning boy just a few meters ahead. Without thinking he begins undoing the small, transparent buttons on his work shirt with clumsy fingers. Finally, the damp shirt is undone and he removes it fully before pushing his way through a small gap in the crowd. He strides towards the burning figure.

The Agarwal family are a family of seven living in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1981. Mukesh works at Hardiman’s Sheet Metals and spends his wages in the Black Eagle. His wife, Usha, gets up at six o’clock every weekday and five on Saturdays to scrub the house of imaginary mice piss. There are five children, two boys and three girls. Billy dies at the beginning of the novel and, while they attempt to come to terms with their brother’s death, the others have their own issues to deal with too. Kavi, the other boy, starts skipping school and withdrawing from his friends. When one of them suggests he should make the most of life, regardless, he responds:

‘Make the most of it – make the most of what? What have we got here in Lozells or even in Handsworth? What have I got to look forward to, or you? Bloody teachers who decide we are thick before we even open our gobs just because our dads have an accent? And then what, the dole? A dead-end job like my dad who is already miserable enough for the whole family? Fuck off, Marcus, there is nothing for me here.’

Kavi isn’t convinced by Marcus’ attempts to get him to join Handsworth Youth Movement but Kavi’s sister, Anila is when there’s a recruitment drive outside her school. The eldest sister, Nina, leaves for university in Leeds, corresponding with her siblings via letter and the odd telephone call, while the other sibling, Kamela, falls in love.

It’s Usha who’s at the heart of the family and the centre of the story though. As she deals with her grief over the death of Billy and tries to hold her family together, she recognises the importance of community. While Thatcher does her best to destroy it, Usha and her friends work together to build something that will bring their area together.

I spoke to Sharon Duggal by phone to ask her about the book.

The opening two chapters of the novel are dramatic and memorable. Where did the idea come from and were they always the opening of the book?

It was an idea that evolved. I had a strong sense of wanting to start with a riot but not make it the whole story. I also had a visual image of the burning boy. I saw a photograph, maybe years ago, of lanterns that float upwards. I think quite visually.

I wanted all of the family to be responding to something but in different ways and I wanted that something to be a consequence of the events at the beginning of the book. The opening chapter was always going to have the girls in the bedroom and the riot. Initially, they were that way around but I received a New Writing South bursary for a reading from The Literacy Consultancy and Rachel Trevize advised switching the bedroom scene and the riot. It made absolute sense; why didn’t I see that?

The book’s the story of a family with a number of issues told from multiple perspectives. How did you manage both the issues that arise and the different points of view?

I wanted to show that even within one family there are multiple stories going on. Minority stories are often linear. However, I didn’t start out thinking I wanted to include all of these issues, I wanted a cramped, claustrophobic household.

I’ve no idea how I managed it! I plotted each thread out separately. Having Nina leave was practical. Kamela was more difficult, she’s strong and feisty. There was a danger it could all seem a bit samey, especially the sisters, so I wanted their stories to be quiet different.

The book’s set in 1980’s Birmingham but there are clear resonances to current society. Was now the right time to write it or was it just coincidence?

It’s coincidence. It was finished pre-Brexit but as it came closer to publication these issues became more popular. Brexit gave people permission to be racist. Not that everyone who voted leave is racist but the way views were aired via mainstream politicians allowed them to become acceptable.

There are lots of references to 80’s culture in the novel. What sort of research did you do?

I was 13/14 in the early 80s and the references stick with you because you’re formulating who you are. Music, particularly ska, was a huge thing for me and ‘Ghost Town’ [by The Specials] was released in July 1981. I spent time checking references and dates. In an early draft, there was a reference to Neighbours but that didn’t start in the U.K. until 1986. I’ve had mixed reactions to it, one book group thought it was too much, others have called it rich in period detail.

You use some dialect in the book. Why did you decide to include it and did you come up against any resistance?

I didn’t come up against any resistance. I didn’t want to do the whole thing in dialect but it’s so much a part of who Brenda was. I wanted it to feel Brummie and I think dialect makes things richer but I didn’t want to replicate all the different dialects. The poet Liz Berry does it beautifully. I didn’t want to be heavy handed. The story takes place in a particular time and place but it is also universal. I still call Birmingham home and people there still call you ‘bab’.

The book is Brighton’s City Reads for 2017. How does it feel to have an entire city celebrating your work?

Absolutely amazing. I’m going to hold onto it for the whole year. You think you’ll never get published and then you realise the hardest thing is getting someone to read it. It meant that some were gifted to prisoners and socially isolated elders. I visited a lot of groups where I was asked unexpected questions and found love for the book. It’s really great to have anyone reading it, never mind a whole city. It encourages people from all walks of life to read it. There was a rough sleepers project. I had a shared meal with them and we discussed the setting and the challenges of family. Having a shared read connects people.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a second book which is very different. It’s just beginning to formulate. I’ve had a very busy year and I’m itching to get on with the next book. There’s going to be lots of writing this year.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Hannah Lowe. Her book Long Time No See is about Chick, her Chinese Jamaican gambler father. It’s about the different strands of who she is.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, particularly Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.

Buchi Emechetta’s book Second Class Citizen was the first time I realised you don’t have to be posh, white, old and live in a big house to have books written about you.

Also, the Brontës, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge.

Thanks to Sharon Duggal for the interview and to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.

 

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong)

The first half of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale tells the story of two twelve-year-old children: Mia, the child with two fathers, and The Child.

Mia is spoilt: she has a set of seventy-two German watercolour pencils from one of her fathers; her every need is met. The only potential problem in her life is that one of the fathers isn’t aware that the other exists.

Early in the novel, Mia declares that she’s going to buy a fountain pen when she grows up. She read in a book that you can use it to kill someone.

But, of course, Mia has no desire to kill anyone; in fact, she doesn’t understand the words death or kill. She is a lucky child, and she lacks the passion, let alone the opportunity, to kill someone; she doesn’t yet know that people kill even in the absence of emotions such as hatred. She doesn’t yet know that rather than trying to aim the tip of a fountain pen at someone’s skull from a tall building, it is far more effective to drive the pointed metal tip into someone’s throat, a fact she would have learned if she had read more books. But she is interested only in detective novels, and because there are more things that she doesn’t know than she does know, her world is simple; and for that reason, she is lucky. Anyhow, I’m going to buy a fountain pen when I grow up, she says. I like the way it sounds. Fountain pen.

Like Chekov’s gun, Han has planted the idea of violence in the opening pages of the novel and, at some point, it has to detonate.

The Child is in Mia’s class at school.

She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.

The Child is abused and neglected. She spends most of her time in pain from a range of sources: her fingernails, cut so short the flesh below is exposed; her stomach, from hunger or the anticipation of what’s to come at home. While Mia is in trouble for a story spread about another classmate killing chicks, the Child has stolen the key to the school classroom. She uses it to enter after school and add sentences to the journals which the pupils write. Her own journal masks the reality of her situation:

No trace must be left. She must disappear instantly, as though she has never existed, not even for an instant. She, too, writes in her journal. But she records nothing. Nothing about herself. Every time the journal is returned to her, she learns how to camouflage more and more words with other words. Cheek with leaf, bruise with wind, blister with light breeze, fingernail with butterfly, curse with song, calf muscle with stick, tongue with ice cream, palm with moon, hair with stars, sigh with whistling, grip with tree branch, shoe heel with footprint, glass shard with sky, spine with dog, thigh with cat, stick with streetlight, crying with bird, pain with bright colors. When I opened the window a light breeze blew in. I wanted ice cream, so I went to the store. There was dew on green leaves. I saw the yellow cat’s family. It was strange that their eyes were green.

The Child makes a decision about the journals which leads to trouble for the whole class. While the teacher tries to resolve the situation with threats, the violence the children perpetuate escalates, leading to a fatal incident.

The second half of the book plays with what we’ve encountered in the first. The narrator is revealed to be the Child who is now both the writer writing the novel and a character in the novel.

You look like you’re twelve, and you also look like you’re twenty. According to simple arithmetic, you’re probably twenty-seven years old now, but no one would be able to guess that. Twelve years old and twenty years old, somewhere in between those two ages, time was torn and crumpled, repeatedly, until it finally disappeared.

Han explores what fiction is and, in doing so, questions how we fictionalise our own lives. She considers the overlap of time and whether different versions of ourselves can co-exist – does the person we were at twelve still live? Are they running around in our world, narrowly missing bumping into our older self?

There are no answers to this conundrum, of course, but there’s a hypnotic beauty in the repetition of language and ideas Han uses to interrogate the idea. Credit to Janet Hong for what cannot have been an easy text to translate. Han’s wordplay where she links meaning and concepts in a stream of consciousness exploration can’t always directly translate. It seems that Hong manages to maintain the intention and meaning of the original text, even if specific words have had to be substituted.

Water isn’t beautiful at all. When water freezes, it becomes ice. Ice is more beautiful than water. But neither water nor ice is beautiful. Water flows. Ice is slippery. I’ve run on ice before. No one was on my back. Every time my hooves touched the ice, I heard a strange noise. It was the sound of me slipping, on and onward. So I guess I can’t say that I ran on ice. Can I say that the ice slipped? The ice slipped up. I was afraid that the slipped-up ice would crack, I was afraid that the water colder than ice would drench me, so on and onward I went.

The Impossible Fairytale is an innovative exploration of the bounds of storytelling. The first of Han Yujoo’s work to be translated into English, I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.

I spoke to Han Yujoo about fiction, the collapsing of time and working with a translator.

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press, I have five copies of The Impossible Fairytale to give away. To win, leave a comment either here or underneath my interview with Han Yujoo on YouTube by 6pm UK time on Sunday 24th September. Giveaway is UK only. Winners will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

The giveaway winners are Ann Bradley, Christabel, Lara Alonso Corona, Victoria Goodbody and Eva. Please check you email for further details. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Books mentioned:

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo

Madame Zero – Sarah Hall

The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector (translated by Benjamin Moser)

Thanks to Tilted Axis for the review copy and the giveaway and to Han Yujoo for the interview.

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Seeing Red begins with a brutal, violent incident that happens at a house party the narrator, Lucina/Lina, is attending with her partner:

And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most gorgeous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.

Her other eye begins to fill with blood soon after and by three a.m. ‘even the most powerful magnifying glass wouldn’t have helped me’. The only compensation is that the following morning Lucina finds the blood in her left eye has sunk to the bottom leaving a slither of light.

In simple terms, what follows is the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with what is happening to her. Of course, the changes that will be wrought in her life are anything other than simple.

The ophthalmologist tells her that she’s ineligible for an experimental transplant and all that can be done for now is ‘to just keep an eye on it’. If the worst happens, he concludes ‘we would have to see’. Lucina is furious.

We follow Lucina as she begins to negotiate her terrain by learning to count the number of steps between places, by attempting to rely on her other senses which sometimes fail her, by having to rely on her partner, Ignacio.

Some of the chapters are bracketed and written directly to Ignacio, detailing the way in which their relationship is changing:

And you were there, and it was as if you were one-eyed, too, you couldn’t understand what had happened. You couldn’t calculate the gravity. You couldn’t bring yourself to ask the questions. You balled them up and stuffed them, like now, in your pockets.

Meruane explores the impact of forced dependency on an independent, ambitious woman. Lucina progresses from telling Ignacio, ‘I am only an apprentice blind woman and I have very little ambitious in the trade’ to telling her mother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get better. I have to learn how to be blind. You’re not helping’. These two relationships, with her partner and her mother, are the key ones in her life and, almost inevitably, the ones which take most of the strain. As the book progresses, Lucina becomes angrier and the narrative more violent.

The tension that builds throughout the novel is aided by the short, flash fiction style chapters and the intensity of Meruane’s use of language and grammar, superbly translated by McDowell. Sentences are short and spiky, they cut off before they are finished. Words are picked up and played with, repetition and association are used to brilliant effect.

Seeing Red is a taut, brutal, horrifying novel. Fierce and unmissable.

I spoke to Lina Meruane about autobiographical writing, family relationships and women in translation.

My review of Hot Milk is here.

Books mentioned:

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Amazon

Waterstones

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Amazon

Waterstones

Darkness Visible – William Styron

Amazon

Waterstones

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

Amazon 

Waterstones

Thanks to Lina Meruane and Kirsty Doole for the interview and to Atlantic Books for the review copy.

When We Speak of Nothing – Olumide Popoola

The what to do and when to place it. The how to undress and how much to leave underneath. The give someone all that could hurt oneself. Or them. And then stand still. Just stand.

Karl is Abu’s ‘brother from another mother’. The pair are seventeen years old, studying for A Levels and living with their families in the King’s Cross area of London. The novel opens with them walking home from school.

Then, out of nowhere, three wannabe guys they knew from sixth form jumping them, right at the corner to Leigh Street. Like real jump. Two of them at Abu calling him Abu-ka-ha-ba-ha-ha-ha-r-pussy and other things that shouldn’t be said in front of anyone, twisting his arm back in its socket like they just got their GCSEs in bullying.

It was crunching. Abu whined.

Being beaten up is a regular occurrence for their pair. The reason for this is revealed as the story unfolds: Karl is transgender and some of his classmates take this as a reason to be abusive towards him and Abu.

And Karl would be all, ‘You know you can just tell them you ain’t gay and be done with it. It’s just me this is for anyway.’ And Abu would be, ‘For real? Bruv, do I look like I have a problem with gay or anything? They know we ain’t gay. I’m not even going to go there. When have I ever let you down? Tell me? Do I really look like I will talk to some pisshead? Got better things to do with my time, mate. If you want to preach again find yourself someone who doesn’t know how to act. Ain’t me.’

Part of what makes this book great is the level of acceptance for Karl from Abu, Abu’s family and Karl’s mum. This isn’t a story about someone transitioning, it’s a coming of age tale of a teenager trying to find their place in the world.

The narrative’s driven by Karl’s lack of contact with his father whom he’s never met. While his mother, who has Multiple Sclerosis, is in hospital, Karl opens a letter from his Uncle Tunde. In it, he tells Karl’s mum, Rebecca, that Karl’s father is ill and now knows of Karl’s existence. He wishes to see Karl. With some manoeuvring that involves Karl, his guardian, Godfrey, and Abu’s family lying to Rebecca, Karl flies to Port Harcourt to meet his father. Things don’t go as expected though: Karl’s father is mysteriously absent and Karl begins to fall in love with a young woman he meets. Back in London, violence is escalating, not only against Abu but across the city following the killing of Mark Duggan.

The novel could’ve been weighed down by the issues it covers. The story meets at the intersections of race, class and gender and considers what it’s like to be a transgender teenager in two different communities; how single parents with health issues cope, and why people respond to a range of situations with violence. However, Popoola’s management of these areas is skilful: she refuses to offer any easy solutions – much of the novel operates in the grey areas of life; there is a clear story about two teenagers negotiating their entry into adulthood, and her use of language is thoughtful and aids in making these characters convincing. She interweaves the vocabulary and speech rhythms of London and Port Harcourt. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing in some dialect or imitating an accent, the grammatical structures echo the spoken word.

When We Speak of Nothing offers a view of teenagers, and of London, rarely seen in literature. It is a tale of friendship, of acceptance, of deciding what’s worth fighting for.

I spoke to Olumide Popoola about writing teenagers, creating a transgender protagonist and playing with language.

Jendella’s playlist is here.

When We Speak of Nothing on Amazon and Waterstones.

My review of The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. The Book of Memory on Amazon and Waterstones.

Thanks to Olumide Popoola and Cassava Republic for the interview and for the review copy of the novel.